Film: A girl who won't wear labels

Pride and Prejudice made Jennifer Ehle a household name. So why is she out of work? Because she's choosy. By Demetrios Matheou

It's shocking. Jennifer Ehle, the nation's favourite Elizabeth Bennett, enters in blue jeans, a long leather jacket and a dyed-blond bob: casually modern, with a natural sexiness that Jane Austen's heroine would never get away with. Soon she's talking about bisexuality, infidelity and all kinds of saucy stuff. Die-hard fans of Pride and Prejudice, of which there were millions when it was first screened in 1995, will be up in arms.

Well, of course, they won't. But this is just the kind of stock introduction, steeped in stereotype, that might make even the amused, amusing and distinctly ego-free Ehle a little peeved. As she repeats in an ironic mantra throughout lunch, "labels, labels": the actor's worst nightmare.

As a youngster, travelling through America with her actress mother, Rosemary Harris, and writer dad, Ehle changed schools 18 times. "In every new class there would be these stock label-carriers," she recalls. "The clown, the brain, the very popular girl, the very popular boy, and the recluse. Each time, I would be cast in a different role, or not at all - I was never anywhere long enough to feel I'd had a label slapped on me. But I was fascinated by what it must be like to go to the same school, all the way through, and never get the chance to break out."

She now wonders if such a common childhood experience, had she experienced it, might have left her better prepared for the media pigeon-holing she has encountered as an actress: notably for her debut role - as the free- spirited, sexually voracious Calypso in Peter Hall's television drama The Camomile Lawn - and for Pride and Prejudice.

"When The Camomile Lawn came out I was suddenly getting this image projected back to me of the `tempestuous Calypso'. People seemed to think that was me, which was so completely..." She still seems shocked by the memory. "I didn't know how to handle it. I felt branded. If anything was written about me, it was always `Jennifer Ehle who took all her clothes off'. That continued for a while and then Pride and Prejudice came along and I went from being tempestuous to being Elizabeth Bennett, after which people would say, `so do you want to get back into a bonnet and corset?'. As if such a fantastic character was defined by her bonnet."

The fascination with her more popular roles and their associations (the real-life affair with her "Mr Darcy", Colin Firth, was bliss for the tabloids) have resulted in an understandable trepidation about interviews which she is trying to overcome. But she also suggests another reason for coyness. "If I think of the actors I really admire - Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith, Ed Harris, Robin Wright - they are people you don't read about very often. I know very little about them. I find, as an audience member, that if someone's not labelled, boxed, categorised, it's easier to suspend disbelief. I remember reading, years and years ago, an interview in which Michelle Pfeiffer said she looked like a duck. She's a very beautiful woman, but when I see her now I do see the duck! Which I quite resent."

These observations are prompted not by actorly spleen, but by the label- busting ethos of Ehle's latest film, Bedrooms and Hallways. At first glance, the film is merely another on the current conveyor belt of British romantic comedies that include Sliding Doors, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and This Year's Love (in which Ehle also stars). What sets it apart are the happy shifts of its characters' sexual preferences, as the safe haven of a men's group is undermined by a gay newcomer.

"One of the things that I loved about the script is its openness, the fact that it doesn't get bogged down in gender stereotypes," says Ehle. "It doesn't slap a label on the first choice that people make." However, she doesn't rush to agree with co-star Simon Callow's opinion that the film reflects a society warming to its innate bisexuality. "That's not my experience. I don't know that many bisexual people. Very few."

She recalls that American director Rose Troche "was completely unhung- up about what the film was about, as was everyone involved. It was only after we'd finished shooting and I was telling somebody about it and they looked rather shocked, that I thought, `oh, right, what are people going to think of all this?'. I wondered whether people were quite ready to be this accepting of characters swapping their sexuality around, of straddling fences. I do think it's bold".

If the actress has "straddled" anything herself, it has been nationality: born in North Carolina to an English mother and American father, she attended a few English schools as well as American ones, changing accent each time she crossed the Atlantic, before the desire to act - "I've got some kind of chromosome glitch that makes me want to pretend to be somebody else; that's my drug"- prompted the decision to settle in London.

"I got into a four-year course at the North Carolina School of Arts, but only ever planned to be there for one year, to prepare for auditions at the London schools. Because I knew I wanted a classical training. I was only 17. I was a minx - so ambitious."

This ambition (which she suggests has "evaporated") led to her also leaving the Central School of Speech and Drama prematurely to star in The Camomile Lawn. Despite her earlier comments, Ehle rightly asserts that neither Calypso nor Elizabeth Bennett "affected the type of roles I've played otherwise. I've been labelled sometimes, but never typecast."

Indeed, the 29-year-old's eclectic CV includes: a spell with the RSC; on television, the enigmatic, contemporary heroine of Alan Bleasdale's Melissa, and a prisoner of war in the Second World War saga Paradise Road; and on film Oscar Wilde's cheated wife Constance in Wilde, and the dreadlocked, caustic single-mum in This Year's Love. If there are common denominators to be found, they are technical: an economy of style quite devoid of histrionics; brilliant diction; and, to steal a word often used to describe Ehle's friend Cate Blanchett, a "luminous" screen presence which owes itself to more than merely standing before the camera.

All of which makes her current unemployment hard to believe. "I've been out of work for seven months. I spend all day in Starbucks reading and going mad," she admits. This may sound melodramatic, but clearly it has been tough (she becomes almost tearful when I mention Blanchett's success, though insists I should continue "talk about her, talk away"). Why? "I think I am choosy, but it's not because I'm choosy. There just aren't that many good women's parts around. There are fewer heroines than heroes in the stories we tell."

But there are more in Britain than in America, she insists, "because of classical literature, because of Shakespeare". So she has no plans to return. "Hollywood has never been my Mecca. And I would rather live in London than LA. I wouldn't want to put myself under the physical scrutiny. I never want to worry about getting old, which I think I would if I were there. I don't want to be obsessed with chins!"

Ehle has one more movie in the can. The Taste of Sunshine, directed by the estimable Istvn Szab (Mephisto, Colonel Redl) and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, tells the story of a Hungarian-Jewish family over three generations and through the two world wars.

"I was in Budapest for two months and I think it was the happiest I've ever been," she reflects. "Because of the work. And because there's something liberating about being extracted from your life and being plonked in the middle of a strange city, breaking your tethers for a bit, being unreachable. Weeks in a hotel can be kind of Zen. You have your basics and that's all you have." And not a label in sight.

`Bedrooms & Hallways' is released tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?